May 23, 2017

Backpack trips in the Sierra Nevadas

I have now done 30 backpacks in the Sierra (over a span of more than 30 years) and spent well over 100 days backpacking and hiking the High Sierra.

  1. Pine Creek and Gable Creek - 1971 (no photos)
  2. Rock Creek - 1973 (?) (no photos)
  3. Bishop Pass - 1989 (?) (no photos)
  4. Whitney 1 - 1990 (no photos)
  5. Whitney 2 - 1992 ? (no photos)

  6. Taboose Pass - 2004
  7. Evolution Region - 2006
  8. Evolution Region - 2006 (OLD)
  9. Taboose Pass - 2009
  10. Pine Creek and Mt. Humphreys - 2010
  11. Shepherd Pass - 2011 (big snow year)
  12. Lone Pine Creek, Mt. Russell - 2011
  13. Rae Lakes Loop - 2011
  14. Sierra High Route, above Pine Creek - July, 2012
  15. Sierra High Route, North - August, 2012
  16. Kearsarge Pass - July, 2013
  17. Bishop Pass - August, 2013

  18. Kearsarge to Whitney - September, 2013
  19. Tuolumne to Yosemite - July, 2014
  20. Amphitheater Lake - August, 2014
  21. Sawmill Pass - October, 2014
  22. JMT and Fire! - September, 2015
  23. Kearsarge Pass - June, 2016
  24. Baxter Pass (and Telescope Peak) - July, 2016
  25. Shepherd Pass, Mt. Whitney - September, 2017
  26. Amanda's Loop - July, 2018
  27. Sawmill Pass to Bench Lake - August, 2018
  28. Kearsarge Pass and Charlotte Lake - August, 2019
  29. Gardiner Basin - July, 2020
  30. Kearsarge Pass roaming - July, 2021
Over the years, I have covered almost all of the John Muir Trail as well as the Sierra High Route. I have done each bit by bit in sections and heartily endorse this way of doing things. These are very different endeavors. The Sierra High Route is for people who are at least 50 percent mountaineer.

Special interests

My special interests that is. These have changed and mutated over time. In my young days, mountaineering filled my mind, but increasingly just wandering, exploring remote places, and identifying wildflowers has become more important.

Other routes

First there was the JMT, then the SHR gained some popularity in certain circles. Now other "routes" are being promoted. One of particular interest is a southerly extension of the SHR (since not everyone wants to exit west to roads end).


You would be crazy to go on a hike in the Sierra without a map. Without a doubt, the best are the maps by Tom Harrison Maps. They are printed on some kind of waterproof plastic material and are indispensible. Along with them I will sometimes print more detailed (1:24000 scale) maps of areas of specific interest.

If you get to looking at the maps done by the USGS, you will be dismayed to discover that some have elevations in feet, and others have elevations in meters. In general the more recent maps have elevations in meters and are inferior to the older maps (as well as being an infernal nuisance). Here is a table of feet to meter to conversions that I find handy:

7000 feet2133 meters
8000 feet2438 meters
9000 feet2743 meters
10000 feet3048 meters
11000 feet3352 meters
12000 feet3657 meters
13000 feet3962 meters
14000 feet4267 meters

Weather (and when to go)

See my page on Sierra weather.

An interesting recommendation (from Porcella and Burns excellent guidebook "Climbing Californias Fourteeners") is:

We have found 0-degree fahrenheit bags to be the minimum for "under the stars" comfort during the summer.
In winter, a bag rated at -20 to -30 degrees Fahrenheit should be taken for these mountains.
This sounds extreme, but matches my personal experience pretty well. If you are in a tent or have a metabolism like a steel-mill you can make adjustments accordingly.

Summer weather in the sierra is typically excellent with low temperatures in the thirties (but temperatures in the twenties are by no means unusual at elevations from 10,000 to 12,000 which is where I often find myself camping.)

Tabulating 26 of my trips, I find that three months get most of my attention:

May and June -- 2 trips
July -- 7
August -- 9
September -- 7
October -- 1
I want to do more trips early season (i.e. June) in order to be in the mountains when snow is melting, streams are rushing, mosquitos and wildflowers are at their peak!

Current Conditions

The following three forums are probably your most useful sources of information. The first two focus on the ever popular activity of climbing Mt. Whitney from the Portal, but an experienced Sierra hiker can extrapolate those conditions to other areas in useful ways.

Note that I do not include the parks or forest service as useful sources of information. Backcountry information on their websites is generally badly out of date and heavily "dumbed down".

Transportation Options

My notes on driving from Tucson.

There is something called the CREST bus. Apparently It runs from Ridgecrest to Reno or something like that, so it could be really handy for certain shuttle type things.

What I am told is that it heads south on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday (leaving Lone Pine at 10AM). It goes north on Tuesday and Thursday (leaving Lone Pine at 6AM).

Another recommended option is:

The Mt. Whitney Shuttle Service
Shuttle Service for the Eastern Sierra
P.O. Drawer A, Lone Pine, CA 93545

Tel: 760-876-1915 best time to call: evenings (Pacific Time)
or send mail to:

Bears, and critters

Mount Whitney

Because of the number of people eager to climb the highest point (14,496 feet) in the 48 states, there are special issues and rules about the Whitney Trail. The powers that be have defined a "Whitney Zone" within which these rules apply. A lottery must be entered to get a permit to enter the zone. As with all such things, these rules change continually, and you ought to verify each year that what I say is so, and if what was true last year is still so. At this time, you obtain and fill out a lottery application, which must be postmarked sometime in February. Note that they begin processing applications mid-month, so if you are really serious, you want to mail your application as early as possible in February, not at the end of the month like I did in 2010. Expect results in April sometime. The relevant page for all of this is: Note that 100 day use permits are issued each day, along with 60 permits for overnight use each day, along with 25 permits per day for "trail crest" (from the west). In other words this is the most heavily used area in the Sierra backcountry, and you should not expect wilderness solitude.

Because of the hassle involved, and the heavy use in this area, I avoid the Whitney area and plan trips elsewhere.

Links and nice pages

A fellow contacted me in April, 2024 asking permission to use two of my photos (of Baxter Pass) in some of his pages:

And here are the rest of the links:

Have any comments? Questions? Drop me a line!

Tom's hiking pages /